Chapter 2: Haskell and the Labor Movement

Burnette G. Haskell, the brilliant and erratic genius. (Courtesy of Bancroft Library)

Burnette G. Haskell, of San Francisco, [was] one of the most erratic and brilliant geniuses in the history of the labor movement on the Pacific Coast.(Ira Cross, History of the Labor Movement in California)

The Co-Operative Land Purchase and Colonization Association in San Francisco to which Charles Keller belonged was spearheaded by Burnette Haskell. He was an intense man of slight build with a high, prominent forehead and a strikingly penetrating gaze. He was prone to nervously consuming cigarettes and dominating a conversation with a flood of words. Although not yet 30 years of age in 1885, he already had made considerable impact on organized labor and seemed destined for even greater notoriety.

Born in 1857 near Downieville in Sierra County, his parents had both come to California during the Gold Rush. The family was rather well-to-do. Haskell’s father, Edward Wilder Haskell, was a Forty-Niner who had achieved considerable success and moved his family into a fine two-story house in Marysville shortly after Haskell was born. A daughter and two more sons followed in the next 10 years.

Haskell’s mother, Marie Briggs Haskell, once described her oldest son as extremely curious, getting into everything. “Where ever his mind was,” she once wrote, “there is where he went.” She noted he was “not a sleepy child, never slept but little” and even claimed he “could write before he was two.” If this hints at a penchant for exaggeration, it was a trait she certainly handed down to her son.

In 1867, at Marie Haskell’s suggestion, the family moved to San Francisco so that they could avail themselves of the cultural and social benefits of city life. Haskell’s father sold off several hundred acres of orchard property to make this possible. The family moved to a fashionable residence on Rincon Hill, and the elder Haskell began large-scale real estate and mining investments.


When Burnette was 17 years old, his ever-curious mind investigated mysticism, and with the help of a book on magic he conjured up a spirit, Astaroth, from the netherworld who told him that he had been chosen for great deeds. But throughout his late teens and early twenties, Burnette Gregor Haskell seemed more destined to become a hopeless underachiever.

Haskell attended San Francisco Public High School but dropped out to take a job as a proofreader in a publishing house, where he learned the printing trade. He returned to high school and eventually went east to attend Oberlin College, but did not register or attend classes. He then moved to Illinois and began studying civil engineering at Illinois University. He left there after a semester and returned to California where he dropped out of the University of California after two months. In her 1950 thesis study on Haskell, Caroline Medan summed up his college career by stating he had been “unduly handicapped by his not registering, not attending class, and not studying.”

Haskell set out to make it on his own and spent two years in Chicago driving a streetcar and clerking, but he evidently squandered what little money he earned and found himself more and more in a world of “poverty and pawn shops.” In 1877, he accepted his father’s suggestion that he return home.

Finally showing signs of settling down, Haskell found a job as a clerk in the law offices of Latimer and Morrow and began studying law on his own. He passed the bar exam in 1879 and eventually established his own law practice. He also became interested in politics and served as assistant secretary for the Republican County Convention and later, in 1881, was appointed deputy tax collector. He resigned the post after only one month. He also served a short stint in the California National Guard, earning a commission of captain but shortly after resigned in part because of an incident involving missing money and records.

During this rather unfocused period of his life, Haskell’s parents went through a considerable change. The effects of a nationwide depression — exacerbated by a severe drought and the arrival of cheap eastern goods on the new transcontinental railroad — brought severe financial hardship to California during the “terrible seventies.” It was no time to be in the investment business, and under the stress of financial difficulties, Edward and Marie Haskell’s marriage ended. She moved to Southern California, and Edward and the rest of the family weathered an extremely difficult period together, moving six times between 1879 and 1882. Each move took them to less fashionable quarters. On Thanksgiving Day 1882, the fractured family moved to working-class Howard Street in San Francisco and were forced to take in boarders.


Haskell’s instability and early career faltering certainly wasn’t from lack of energy, imagination, or enthusiasm but from a definite lack of focus. The 25-year-old had been influenced by law, politics, and the military. He displayed a love for the secret and unusual. His capacity for planning and scheming were strikingly apparent and constantly in operation. He had yet, however, to find the great dedication that would be his life’s work. It was through the newspaper business that he would ultimately make that discovery.

Haskell’s work with the Republican party led to a position as editor of the Political Record, a weekly newspaper in which Haskell hoped to exhort against corruption in politics, which he editorialized was a ““danger greater than rebellion and stronger than sectional hatred.” But Haskell quickly became disillusioned when he discovered that the publisher had accepted $50 for printing an article favorable to a local candidate for public office. Haskell did the one thing at which he was an expert: he quit. His newspaper career was resurrected, however, when a wealthy uncle on his mother’s side set Haskell up with a paper of his own.

While his uncle perhaps hoped the weekly four-sheet paper, called Truth, might help promote his own political career, it wasn’t long before Haskell had other ideas about the publication’s mission. The turning point came one evening in 1882 when, in search of news, Haskell attended a meeting of the Trades Assembly, a Socialist labor organization. Charles F. Burgman spoke at the meeting. It was a speech that opened Haskell’s eyes, and he quickly offered to make his weekly paper an organ of the Assembly. In his enthusiasm, he spoke passionately of the corruption he had seen and in which he had taken part.

Trades Assembly president Frank Roney described the situation in his autobiography:

[Burnette Haskell] was a lawyer and was employed in the law office of the chairman of the Republican State Central Committee. He had never heard of trade unions or of the movement until he attended the meeting held to hear Burgman’s report. Haskell’s speech was a frank and uncolored admission of the way politics were run in California at that time. His duties led him to Sacramento to secure by corrupt means passage of measures beneficial to corporations. He did all these things in blissful ignorance of their propriety, believing them to be simply acts in the political game necessary. It shocked most of us and was a revelation that we little expected.

Bitter opposition to Haskell’s offer to make the paper the voice of the Assembly was at first expressed by its delegates. However, Roney eventually prevailed upon the members to accept Haskell’s proposal, and Truth became the official organ of the Trades Assembly:

Haskell thereafter [Roney wrote] was one of the busiest men in the labor movement, and in a short time became a leading exponent of Socialism and then of Anarchism.


It is hard to believe that Haskell had never heard of trade unions or of the movement before attending the Trades Assembly meeting, but making such a claim was well within his character. During the 1870s, San Francisco was a town rife with sandlot rallies by torchlight as tensions arose from the extremes of poverty and wealth so evident. Denis Kearney’s incendiary speeches and anti-Chinese agitation defined the time. Radical political parties, such as the Workingmen’s Party of California, sprang up. Rallies erupted in violence, and a railroad strike in the East ignited widespread riots in San Francisco. This tradition of radicalism prompted California historian Kevin Starr to aptly coin the term “Left Side of the Continent” when describing the state.

Starr traced the roots of California’s unique labor history in the opening chapter of Endangered Dreams back to the Gold Rush, explaining how it had created a great need for labor. Labor early on had the advantage and commanded extremely high wages. The Gold Rush also restored dignity to labor, for no matter what a man had done before, he performed hard physical labor in the gold fields. “For a few short years, everyone had been a worker,” Starr noted, “and by and through physical work California had been established.”

Trade unions gained strength in San Francisco, which due to geographic boundaries and further isolation from the East during the Civil War developed its own manufacturing need and capacity. A heightened influx of immigrants after the completion of the transcontinental railroad created a burgeoning surplus labor force. This situation forced down wages in the state and stoked anti-Chinese sentiment. A severe depression in the mid-1870s — the third and fiercest to hit San Francisco since 1869 — further radicalized the labor movement as the search for solutions became more desperate.

Haskell was undoubtedly searching for solutions himself when, in the early 1880s, he devoted himself with a singular fervor to the cause. Haskell had always displayed an impatience and “lack of stability” that biographer Caroline Medan called “the defect of his personality.” But with his conversion to the cause of labor, Haskell finally found his great dedication.

“As editor, lawyer, union organizer, internationalist and cooperationist,” Medan wrote, “Haskell tried to realize a dream of radical reform through socialism.”


When Truth became the official organ of the socialist League of Deliverance, which had evolved from the Trades Assembly, Burgman began the task of converting Truth’s young editor. Labor historian Ira Cross once noted that the intellectually insatiable Haskell “within a short time mastered all the available labor and radical literature and became without a doubt the best read man in the local labor movement.” By the early 1880s, there was a considerable wealth of material to read. Much of this writing was in response to the social consequences brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the new problems between capital and labor that ensued.

Haskell would have familiarized himself with the French socialists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the influential thinker Count Henri de Saint-Simon; Charles Fourier, a lonely, saintly man with a tenuous hold on reality who described a socialist utopia in lavish mathematical detail; the more practical Louis Blanc; and Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who wrote the 1840 pamphlet What is Property? (The short answer, according to Proudhon, was that all property was profit stolen from the worker.) Haskell very well may have studied social reformers in Britain such as Robert Owen, whose experiments in cooperative and socialist communities included one at New Harmony, Indiana.

Undoubtedly the most influential writer Haskell would have read during this period was Karl Marx. Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, published in 1848 what has been called the Bible of Socialism — The Communist Manifesto (originally the Manifesto of the Communist Party). Marxism united sociology, economics, and all human history in a vast and imposing edifice. By 1880, Haskell also had available to him Marx’s 1859 Critique of Political Economy and his great 1867 theoretical work, Capital. Marx synthesized in his socialism not only French utopian schemes but English classical economics and German philosophy. Haskell was an eager student, enthused no doubt by The Communist Manifesto, which ended with the summons: “Working men of all countries, UNITE!”

Haskell organized a clandestine association — the Invisible Republic — in the summer of 1882 that was basically an elaborate Socialist study group. Steeped in elaborate Roman ritual and a “sense of secret power” that his supposed inside knowledge of state politics made seem meaningful, the Invisible Republic was mostly concerned with, as one observer put it, “talk, talk, talk, and some little swearing too.”

Meanwhile, the pages of Haskell’s Truth were filled with articles by or in praise of such notable figures as John Swinton, Henry George, Victor Hugo, Kropotkin, Marx, and Bakunin. Readers were implored to organize themselves into groups of seven, and each in turn organize into another group of seven, and so on until the whole Pacific Coast was organized. Haskell showed an obsession for organizational schemes based on pyramids and geometric progression. Haskell’s Truth also contained science fiction articles, many penned by Haskell himself. With titles like “Invisible Men Amongst Us” and “How to Grow Tall at Will,” one can imagine that even these fanciful stories carried a pointed political subtext.

Leagues and associations came and went, were organized or dissolved or merged with confusing frequency. There existed a mish-mash of groups in San Francisco such as the Assembly of the Knights of Labor or the Revolutionary Socialistic Party. Haskell’s Invisible Republic soon “weeded out the men who could not go as far as we went in radicalism” and was re-christened the Illuminati. Truth became more revolutionary in tone, advocating class struggle and anarchy.

By 1883, Haskell became convinced that a complete overhaul of the economic and political structure of America was necessary and that limited educational organizations like his Invisible Republic and Illuminati had insufficient means with which to bring about radical social revolution. Haskell established the International Workingmen’s Association based on, but with no connection to, Marx’s International, which was founded in 1864.

The bookish Marx excelled as a practical organizer and following the founding of the First International, he fought successfully to control the organization, using its annual meetings to spread his realistic “scientific” doctrines of inevitable Socialist revolution. This no doubt contributed greatly to the phenomenal growth of Socialist political parties worldwide in the 1870s. Various Socialist parties emerged in France, the German Social Democratic party was founded and gained considerable strength and, in 1883, Russian exiles in Switzerland founded the Russian Social Democratic party.

Like Marx, Haskell displayed a talent for practical organization. The purpose of his IWA was, he maintained, to hasten the arrival of a socialist government to “give each man the full product of his labor and his fair share of earthly benefits.” Organization was patterned on many secret revolutionary societies, with cells of members, divisions of rank, and encoded membership cards. The secrecy and Haskell’s tendency toward exaggeration makes the size of the membership difficult to ascertain, but Ira Cross felt confident that the IWA had at least 19 groups in San Francisco, 10 in Eureka and vicinity, two in Oakland, and one each in San Rafael, Berkeley, Healdsburg, Stockton, Sacramento, and Tulare County.

Truth, which naturally became the official organ of Haskell’s IWA, became now even more revolutionary and extreme, at times advocating the use of violence. On November 17, 1883, it declared:

War to the palace, peace to the cottage, death to luxurious idleness! We have no moment to waste. Arm, I say, to the death! For the Revolution is upon you.

In another issue it announced, “Truth is five cents a copy, and dynamite forty cents a pound,” and once published an article entitled “Street Fighting Military Tactics for the Lower Classes” that printed a recipe for dynamite.

These sensational incitements were probably more to attract attention than to really motivate action. Ira Cross had opportunity to interview Haskell shortly before he died and “he told of having manufactured bombs, of secreting valises filled with them, and of plans to blow up the County Hall of Records,” but history cannot trace a single act of violence resulting from Haskell’s incendiary writings and extravagant statements.

Haskell’s Pacific Coast Division of the IWA did, however, prove to be an important factor in building up the labor movement in California. Haskell’s greatest union-organizing effort was the Coast Seamen’s Union, which began with Haskell speaking to a couple hundred sailors from a pile of wet lumber on a pier one rainy night and grew to a union over 1,200 members strong. For all his organizing and propagandizing success, Haskell realized that approaching socialism by means of educational groups, revolutionary secret societies, or labor unionism was not the way to achieve his dream of a fair and just society.

One summer day in 1884, at a Knights of Labor picnic, Haskell fell into a discussion with some friends: James J. Martin, an Englishman who was active in helping him organize the Coast Seamen’s Union, and John Hooper Redstone, a patriarchal figure among Haskell’s associates with a long history of labor and radical activity. An original member of the IWA, Redstone may well have given Haskell the idea for that organization, for he had been at least tangentially involved in the formation of Marx’s old International. Haskell felt that a small group or colony operating under the tenets of socialism would provide the most effective argument for his cause. He envisioned a living example of harmonious cooperation in contrast to the misery and want of the “competitive system,” which was the phrase then commonly used as a pejorative term for capitalism.

As well-read as Haskell was, it is no surprise he found the blueprint for such an endeavor in Laurence Gronlund’s Co-operative Commonwealth, a small volume that had only recently been published and was said to be the “first comprehensive work in English on socialism.” Using the terms “socialism” and “social cooperation” interchangeably, Haskell was naturally attracted to Gronlund’s suggestion of organization, which included a hierarchical scheme of divisions, departments, bureaus, and sections. Haskell and his friends undoubtedly discussed Gronlund’s book at the picnic that day, for it would become for them part handbook and part bible.

The very forests surrounding the picnic area where Haskell, Martin, and Redstone discussed their plans and dreams provided further inspiration. If a group could settle on land that offered industrial possibilities or natural resources — a forest, for example — the financial potential would greatly add to a colony’s appeal. The trio decided to move forward, to act on their plans and dreams, and a new organization was thus born.

To finance the early phases of their project and to begin implementation of the plan, Haskell and his associates organized a land purchase company. The first meeting of the Co-Operative Land Purchase and Colonization Association was held in October 1884. Each member agreed to pay a monthly sum, although many were poor and had to “pawn their jewelry or mortgage their homes” to take part, and this money was “devoted to employing searchers for government and other cheap land.” Many of these members were also members of the IWA, which drew from groups throughout California, including Traver, California. Charles Keller was one such member.


It is hard to imagine with all of Haskell’s activities during the early 1880s that he would have time for anything else. But in 1881, shortly before his conversion to the causes of labor and socialism, Burnette Haskell was spending a considerable amount of time with a young woman who was a friend of his sister Helen.

Photos of Anna Fader show a woman that by modern standards would not be considered a conventional beauty. This is perhaps partly the fault of the camera, which failed to flatter her thin, long, slightly-pinched face, and crooked smile. But Haskell didn’t miss any opportunity to flatter the 23-year-old woman who had come to live with his family. From the start, he was obviously attracted to her. Her independent spirit — she had come alone to San Francisco seeking her own fortune — and intellectual prowess, along with her physical appearance, had caught his eye. Between Burnette and Annie, as she was called, there was an immediate, definite attraction. She wrote in her diary shortly after taking a room with the Haskells:

Retired at three this morning after discussing the theory of evolution until we were wild. Helen’s brother is the best informed gentleman I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Sometime in 1882, Burnette and Annie entered into a home-drawn marriage contract. Presiding over this ceremony was Haskell’s favorite conjured spirit: Astaroth (the origin of which was probably Ashtoreth or Astart, the Phoenician goddess of fertility and sexual love). By June 1883, the marriage was formalized in a legal ceremony. Annie Haskell described her new husband as a regular socialist, nihilist, communist, red republican. “He makes me smile,” she added.

I get so mad at Burnette because he just talks Socialism from the minute he comes in until he goes out [Annie once wrote in her diary]. Well, not all the time, but most. He was very pleasant and loving this evening. I listen but I laugh. He loves himself the best.

By 1885, Burnette Haskell had begun to talk a great deal about cooperation and a proposed Colony.

SOURCES: The Haskell Family Papers, housed at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California, were vital as a source in this chapter. Also consulted was Caroline Medan’s M.A. thesis paper “Burnette Gregor Haskell: California Radical” at the University of California. Another thesis, Oscar Berland’s “Aborted Revolution: A Study in the Formative Years of the American Labor Movement” proved valuable as well. In addition to those key sources, books such as Kevin Starr’s Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (Oxford University Press, NY, 1996); Irish Rebel and California Labor Leader: An Autobiography (edited by Ira Cross, UC Press, 1935) by Frank Roney, and especially Ira Cross’s History of the Labor Movement in California (UC Publications in Economics, 1935) were consulted. Newspaper sources include various issues of Truth (via microfilm at the Bancroft Library) and The Commonwealth (monthly journal of the Kaweah Colony, which predated the later Kaweah Commonwealth). One especially noteworthy source was the diaries, part of the Bancroft’s Haskell Family Papers, of Anna F. Haskell

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